Destined for Middle School: You Gotta Have Heart

Delia Davis-Dyke didn’t always want to be a middle school administrator.

Her first aspiration was to be an attorney, but she was moved by the words of one of early bosses: “Major in what you love and the money will come.” So Ms. Davis-Dyke studied Spanish until she realized she wanted to have the same valuable impact that a number of educators had on her life.

Educators were key in Delia’s development during her middle years. Her mom died when she was just 13 years old, and without the guidance of the teachers around her, who knows what might have happened?

Kramer Middle School

Kramer Middle School

“(Because of) the trauma that I went through having lost my parent,” Davis-Dyke explained, “it was important to have caring adults who could walk me through the process and tell me I’m OK. I can’t imagine myself anywhere else today besides middle school.”

Davis-Dykes understands the complexities of middle grades students. She knows that they are changing a great deal during the years she spends with them at Kramer Middle School in Washington, D.C. Though looking to establish themselves as individuals, they still need guidance from adults.

“Middle school students are not yet grown,” Davis-Dyke said.  “Don’t think that they don’t require support and guidance. They may speak more maturely. They (may) have a grown attitude and sassiness. They may be man-ish and woman-ish, but they are still children who need guidance, love, modeling, and support.”

One reason she is such an exemplary assistant principal is that Davis-Dyke understands a great deal about how an early adolescent’s brain develops. Researchers tell us that other than the period from birth to two years old, there is no other time in a human being’s life that the brain grows as much as during the early teen years. “Their brains are still developing, so even though they can look at you and tell you right from wrong, research shows there are parts of their brains that aren’t solidified until they’re twenty-one years old. When they have to make those rational, logical, and ethical decisions, their brain is not fully developed. (As a result), we have to constantly teach, re-teach, model, teach, re-teach, model, over and over again,” she said.

To help their students have the supports they need to succeed, Davis-Dyke and the team at Kramer work with a number of partners, including the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative and the Marzano Research Laboratory. Working with these partners, the Kramer staff puts structures in place to ensure the academic, emotional, and social success of their students.

When asked about how she handles helping middle school students to deal with all of the changes they are going through, Davis-Dyke reminded me of a great truth: “Middle school is not for the faint of heart.”

Her students are fortunate that Ms. Davis-Dyke is committed to having the same positive impact on her students that her middle school teachers had on her. She clearly has the heart for this work.

Geneviève DeBose is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Bronx Charter School for the Arts in New York City. She wants to give a special shout-out to all of the Kramer staff and Principal Kwame Simmons for opening up their school to a fellow middle school teacher.

Keeping REAL-Time at Glasgow Middle

Three years ago, Principal of Glasgow Middle School (Fairfax, Va.) Deirdre Lavery found herself face to face with the classic middle school dilemma: how to make all students in her diverse population feel a part of large school community while also setting rigorous academic standards.

Not an easy task for any middle school principal. But Lavery’s dilemma was intensified because hers is an International Baccalaureate (I.B.) school offering eight content subjects. The variety of academic courses gave students choices and let them dig deeper in subjects of interest, but it also made it tough to organize teachers into grade-level teams who work together with teams of students in the same grade level.

Picture of Students

Sixth grade students in Curg Lines’s technology class show off one of two towers they built using the design model. Glasgow employs six technology teachers, but the high number of course offerings has forced the school to be creative to engage everyone.

Still, Lavery was determined to offer a middle school experience where students feel that they belong, where they have a strong relationship with at least one adult, and where students are engaged in their own learning and 21st century skills (collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication) could be discreetly taught.

Where did Lavery turn for her answers to the challenge?  To her greatest resource:  her teachers.

Lavery commissioned a group of teacher leaders to conduct a survey of research strategies to engage students and develop a program for Glasgow.  Give me “a program and a structure,” Lavery told the team. “We’re going to do what’s right for the kids.”

According to Stephanie Barrus, a newcomer to the school who led the team, the group followed the classic design structure that they teach their students in class. “We defined the problem, investigated alternatives, created and implemented a pilot program, and then evaluated and adapted it to fit the school.”

Their result is called REAL-Time — an advisor/advisee program that fits Glasgow’s unique circumstances.

    • Every teacher has 15 students from three different grades. Mixing the grades helps the 6th graders to be mentored by the older students and cuts down on bullying.
    • Staying with the same teacher, counselor and administrator for three years helps helps students to bond with at least one adult who knows them well and advocates for them.
    • REAL-Time meets every day for 25 minutes during sixth period (so students aren’t tempted to sleep late and skip it).
    • Tuesdays-Thursdays, there is a planned curriculum for REAL-Time that includes organizing, team building, meeting about academics, and holding group discussions. On Mondays and Fridays there is flex time to help with homework, work on IB lessons, and sustained silent reading.

How is REAL-Time working?

The truth is in the numbers.  In the pilot conducted during the 2010-2011 school year, 80% of students reported that their REAL-Time teacher knows them and their academic goals; 63% said they are learning skills in REAL-Time that will help them be successful in school and life; 81% reported that REAL-Time has helped them improve organizational skills; and 70% reported that their REAL-Time teacher is helping them develop skills to increase their grades.

More than that, students are developing very specific skills cooperating with one another and helping each other to grow.  When I visited a REAL-Time class at Glasgow, students were discussing a short video about setting goals and practicing interacting in an academic environment.  Reviewing the norms for group work, one student reminded the others about the need for everyone to “speak with good purpose.”

At the time, I thought, that is a lesson that adults everywhere could stand to be reminded of from time to time.

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a Teacher Liaison at the Department of Education, on loan from her school in Buncombe County, N.C.

Middle Grades Matter

“You teach middle school? Why?! All those hormones and growth spurts and changes. How do you do it?”

These words are not uncommon for middle grades teachers to hear. The general public, other educators, and even parents of young adolescents are often shocked to hear that anyone would want to teach this age group. And who can blame them for being skeptical? Children ages 10 to 15 are experiencing a great deal of change. In no other time, besides the first years of life, are humans experiencing such rapid cognitive growth.

School Crosswalk SignEarly adolescents are extremely social and care deeply about what their peers think of them.  This might explain why groups of 8th graders wear feathers in their hair one month and multi-colored contacts the next (even if they have 20/20 vision). This is a period of dramatic physical change. Girls get taller, boys don’t…yet. Voices deepen after they rise in pitch. During the middle grades years the only constant is change. Middle level educators know that these changes dramatically impact the way that middle level education must look and how we as teachers must structure our instruction to ensure career and college readiness for our future leaders.

In addition to all of these changes, adolescence brings excitement to learning, a curiosity about the world, and a longing for guidance. Who wouldn’t want to teach this group of impressionable and unpredictable youth? One middle level educator said it best when he stated, “These are the pivotal years, where we make or break a student, where we turn them on or off.”

As Teaching Ambassador Fellows we’ve had the opportunity to travel across the country and talk with many middle level educators. In all of our conversations similar themes have emerged.

1.)   Middle grades’ students need a variety of choices in their classes, their programming, and their activities. Students are trying to figure out who they are and offering them an array of choices will allow them to try new things in a safe space.

2.) The middle grades experience needs to be one that focuses on the whole child. It cannot simply be about academics but has to be focused on the social and emotional development of each child. Life skills, study skills, and social skills need to be taught during these years because these foundational skills are crucial to future success.

3.) Middle grades schools need time in the day and access to caring adults for teachers and students to build relationships, for teacher collaboration, and for planning interdisciplinary curriculum. Without sufficient time, students’ needs cannot fully be met.

4.) Middle grades schools need to have clear intervention programs for struggling students. Once students have been identified as “struggling” there need to be school or district-wide programs in place to help support these students, their families, and their teachers. These intervention programs must be meaningful and consistent.

5.) Middle level education must recruit and retain highly effective middle level educators.  They must be experts in their content area, possess excellent instructional strategies that are specific to middle level education, and strive to develop positive relationships with their students.

6.) Middle grades schools need to have a strategic partnership between students, teachers, and families. School-wide structures need to be in place to engage, welcome, and communicate with all families. When students see that their families are valued, welcomed, and engaged they are more likely to feel valued and welcomed in their school community.

Geneviève DeBose and Kareen Borders at a middle grades roundtable in Mason, Ohio.

Research shows show that many students at the greatest risk of dropping out of high school can be identified in middle school by their grades, attendance, behavior, and test scores. Countless studies have shown that if middle level schools are to meet the diverse needs of young adolescents, schools must be developmentally responsive, socially equitable, and academically rigorous. They have to be places where kids are turned on, instead of off; where that 6th grader gets a friendly reminder to take his homework out of his backpack; where despite all of the physical changes they are experiencing every student is accepted and has a safe space to build relationships with those around them, who are going through the same kinds of changes.

The middle grades can be a time of turmoil or a time of triumph. We know that with all hands on deck our young adolescents can thrive. Middle level education must be a distinct and valued focus at the local, state, and national level.  As we aim to welcome graduates with 21st century skills into the world as productive and collaborative citizens, middle level education clearly matters.

Secretary Duncan recently spoke at the Association for Middle Level Education’s (AMLE) annual conference. Click here to read the speech.

Geneviève DeBose and Kareen Borders are Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the Department of Education